Canadian billionaire Stronach to end foray into Austrian politics

Reuters

(Changes currency conversion in paragraph 12 to million frombillion)

* Stronach to bow out in next 18 months

* Gaffes on China, death penalty marred election campaign

* Rare attempt to break centrist mould of Austrian politics

By Georgina Prodhan

VIENNA, Oct 23 (Reuters) - Austro-Canadian billionaire FrankStronach is to retire from Austrian politics after a year-longadventure that culminated in a poor poll showing and the nearself-destruction of his party.

The maverick 81-year-old industrialist scored adisappointing 6 percent in national elections last month, aftervoter disenchantment with the centrist status quo had propelledhim as high as 10 percent in early opinion polls.

Stronach, a self-styled anti-establishment politician, lostground after an embarrassing series of television debates, inwhich he warned of the danger of Chinese troops "marching in" toAustria, and voiced support for the death penalty.

Amid disarray in his Team Stronach party in the wake of theelection and multiple firings of top party officials, thefounder of car-parts firm Magna International andAustrian parliamentarian said he had had enough.

"I would still like to live a little," he told ORFtelevision late on Tuesday.

"Sooner or later... I will stand aside," he said in heavilyaccented German, adding that this meant in half a year, a year,or possibly as long as a year and a half.

Stronach had campaigned on the strength of his personalityand a mantra of "truth, fairness and transparency" with which hepromised to disrupt the cosy alliance of Social Democrat (SPO)and conservative parties that dominates Austrian politics.

His departure will mark the end of a rare attempt to breakthe mould in a country that has been governed by centristcoalitions, in close partnership with business and labourleaders, since the 1950s. It is also likely to help the farright, from whom he picked up many protest votes.

COALITION TALKS

The SPO and conservative People's Party began officialcoalition negotiations on Tuesday, after scraping to a combinedmajority of 51 percent in the Sept. 29 national poll - theirworst result ever.

Team Stronach won 11 of the 183 seats in parliament.

Stronach sneered at career politicians and proposed electingcitizen representatives and limiting terms of political office,as well as promising lower business taxes and drastic cuts toAustria's thriving bureaucracy.

He said he had entered politics only to provide a service tohis native country, where he grew up during the Great Depressionand World War Two before seeking his fortune in Canada.

Stronach spent 11 million euros ($15 million) of his ownmoney on a presidential-style election campaign, openly floutingcampaign-financing limits, and was accused of buying members ofparliament from other parties - a charge he denied.

But his frequent and lengthy absences from Austria for taxreasons - he flew back to Canada soon after the elections andbefore he could attend an audience with the president - earnedhim hefty criticism.

He frequently lashed out at the media, claiming theyconstantly misrepresented him, as well as at politicians who, hesaid, lacked any understanding of business.

Stronach built up Magna into an international corporationafter leaving Austria for Canada as a penniless 21-year-old tool maker in 1954.

Despite debacles that included confusion about whorepresented the party - at one time there were two politiciansboth claiming to be party chief in the province of Carinthia -Stronach said his team would continue to fight for his values.

He said he would remain an adviser to the party.($1 = 0.7260 euros) (Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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